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State trooper talks school safety with Westmoreland County business leaders

Jacob Tierney
| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 4:31 p.m.

Deborah Salopek doesn't know what to tell her teenage son when he asks what to do if there's a shooting at Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School, which has been evacuated twice in two weeks because of threats.

“What can I say to keep him safe?” she asked state Trooper Stephen Limani, who met with business and community leaders Thursday to discuss school safety.

The Parkland high school shooting in Florida that killed 17 last month has heightened the sense of danger at schools, and made threats more likely, Limani said.

Southwestern Pennsylvania school districts have dealt with more than 40 threats since the Florida shooting, often canceling classes and evacuating students in response.

Districts are taking these threats more seriously because of the Parkland shooting, Limani said. A threat scrawled on a bathroom wall didn't lead to an evacuation in most cases. Now it does.

“Just to be safe, the schools are taking that extra step,” he said.

The discussion was held at a Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Rizzo's Malabar Inn in Crabtree.

Chamber President Chad Amond said he hoped talking about school safety would lead to ideas and solutions.

“If you bring people together to have conversations, there will be positive outcomes,” he said.

Fire drills used to be the main method of safety training at schools. With shootings, bomb threats and more, things have gotten more complicated, Limani said.

“From 1970 on, at a public school, there's never been a kid that died in a fire,” he said. “But when we're talking about an active shooter scenario, and the violence that we've been facing, unfortunately you can't say the same thing.”

Law enforcement officers are looking into ways to make the penalties for threats more serious, and offset the damage they cause, Limani said.

State police are in talks with the Westmoreland County District Attorney's office to see if it's possible to seek financial restitution from students convicted of threatening a school, Limani said.

Evacuating a school and scheduling make-up school days can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“Who's going to pay for that? Why should the taxpayer have to pay?” Limani said. “That's what I try to tell these kids, this isn't a joke, this is a crime you're committing.”

He was noncommittal on a question about whether teachers should carry guns.

“Usually it's a person with a gun that stops a person with a gun, but that doesn't mean you can give a gun to someone who doesn't know how to use it,” he said.

He also expressed concerns about a proposed “National School Walkout” proposed for March 14, when students at districts around the country leave school for 17 minutes to protest gun violence. Mt. Pleasant students held a similar walkout last week.

Limani said students are at higher risk of injury by leaving the school.

“If they walk out of school that makes it really difficult for me to keep them safe, and for administrators to keep us safe.”

Franklin Regional School District Superintendent Gennaro Piraino Jr. attended the luncheon, and said administrators are talking with students about how to protest safely and responsibly while making their voices heard.

Salopek, director of operations for Integrity Retirement Solutions, said school districts should be more open about the nature of threats.

“Give us more information about the threat. I think we have a right to know what the threat was,” she said.

Piraino said school districts do all they can to protect their students, but there are no guarantees, and preventing a tragedy requires effort from the whole community.

“We're all responsible. Moms, dads, friends, teachers, cafeteria workers,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, or via Twitter @Soolseem.

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